Friday, November 8, 2013. That’s the day I visited Chicago. Temperatures were above freezing and the wind chill was moderate. I’ve been told those are good conditions to be visiting the Windy City, although conditions could be better in, say, the summer. But I only had one day to visit Chicago and it just so happened to be in November.
The day started at 10am as my trusty city guide, a local friend I met as a guide in the western United States a few years back, led me to an elevated platform above the city streets on which some sort of steel rails were running. That’s when I understood we’d be taking the “L”, the city’s equivalent of the metro (only it’s mostly “el”evated) into downtown. I told my guide I hadn’t researched anything about Chicago, but the only thing I do know and want to visit is the beginning of the Route 66. After all, as the song goes, it winds more than 2000 miles from Chicago to LA. As it turns out, nobody really knows where the road officially starts, but I made such a fuss over visiting the Route 66 sign that we downloaded a trail map of the supposed route through downtown and followed it word for word in what seemed like a scavenger hunt. Finally, we arrived at the corner of Jackson and Michigan and saw a sign reading “END of Route 66.” Needless to say, I was infuriated! The song clearly states that the route winds from Chicago to LA. So clearly it begins in Chicago and ends in LA. There is no going back, so how could there be an END sign? I continued making a fuss over this subject to my friend, then apologized profusely for filling her ear with my disdain to the END sign, and then continued my rant against it all day long. I’m not sure how she managed to stick with me throughout the day.
To try and get my mind off the END, my guide suggested going to see the Lake and the city parks nearby, which I heartily accepted. After all, I am in Chicago for only one day and I came to see the entire city, not just a little sign. So off to the Lake we went, which seemed like the Ocean to me, and my friend explained that the stationary tiny island with a needle sticking out of it way in the distance is the location from which the city pumps its drinking water. I was taken aback. Suddenly I realized that I was looking at a huge lake, not the ocean, and that it is a fresh-water lake. I suppose it took a while for the light bulb to go off. I had to keep reminding myself all day that I was drinking lake water and that Chicago is a city in the middle of the United States, not sitting on any salt water shore.
From the Lake we turned back toward the city and passed the impressive Buckingham Fountain (which was dry due to the winter season), Grant Park (known for Lollapalooza), and Millennium Park, next to which lies the famous bean that I have never heard about (once again, a reminder, I did not research anything about Chicago before arriving there). Apparently the bean is called Cloudgate and it is a smooth metal structure in the shape of a kidney bean that is as big as a two-story house. It is essentially a rounded mirror that reflects back the sky, the skyscrapers, the ground, and the people taking pictures of it from all directions. Hours could be spent taking crazy pictures of and from this structure.
After the initial shock and excitement over the bean and 100 photographs later, we continued moving through the Face Fountain, which also was a dry fountain due to the winter season, but the face was on it nevertheless. For those who haven’t been, the Face Fountain is a blown-up picture of a face (the size of a building), which changes every few minutes and spits out water from the face’s mouth. I presume it is really cool to see when water is actually flowing.
Moving on and back toward downtown, my friend had the bright idea of telling me that we’re going back to look for the beginning of Route 66. I had completely forgotten about it, what with the lake and the bean and the spitting fountain, and now my mind was about that dreaded road again. But I managed to keep my composure and suggested we get a hot dog after we find the sign, since we are in Chicago of course. Then I proceeded to explain that the Route 66 had always been driven from Chicago to LA and that all documents about the road always explain it in the westward direction, never back eastward, and therefore it is impossible to have an END sign, etc. when we arrived at the intersection of Adams and Michigan and lo and behold there it is, the BEGIN sign! Then I shut up and took some pictures and then we walked into City Dogs in silence and had a Chicago Dog which was really good and then we continued the city tour downtown through the big buildings and only from time to time did I raise my voice to say something about the END sign and my friend silently put up with it.
Other sites we saw along the way in Chicago were the Chagall Mosaic by the Chase Building. For your information, this is the building where Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the NPR News Quiz is recorded each Thursday (I arrived too late Thursday night and missed the recording, but had a deep dish stuffed Chicago-style pizza at Giogiano’s instead). Also, if you lean you back against the building and look up, it looks like the building is about the fall over you. We then visited some buildings with cool architecture designed or renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright (such as the Rookery Building), walked by the Sears (or Willis) Tower, bought a cupcake from a cupcake truck, ate the cupcake at Union Station into which we had walked in a failed attempt to look for coffee from a non-franchised company, and followed the Riverwalk toward the Hancock Center. Of course, we made a small detour to walk between a few more buildings downtown as I complained about being tired because of not having coffee even though we had passed a gazillion Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and I certainly had not forgotten about the Route 66 fiasco.
Finally, we had made the final stretch through the Magnificent Mile and arrived at our final stop, the Hancock Center, into which we found the elevators to the bar on the 96th floor, looked at the view from the top and, for some unknown reason, descended back down before being served any drinks even though we were both completely dehydrated by that time. To satiate our thirst, we walked into Bar Toma and had a great coffee (finally) and an amazing Venetian hot chocolate and called it a day. As we waited for the “L” to take us back to my friend’s house, it had occurred to me that I did not know a thing about Chicago before getting there. Somewhere I had missed the fact that the Route 66 never had an official beginning, I had no idea Frank Lloyd Wright had any buildings in this city, and I had never heard of the bean. I turned to my friend in disbelief and asked, “What lake is that which we visited this morning?”
I would like to thank my guide friend for putting up with me for the duration of my short stay in Chicago, which to her must have seemed like a really long time. And I'd also like to thank her for not laughing too hard when she answered that we visited the shore of Lake Michigan.